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La Traviata review: Irish National Opera’s season closer features strong singing, but the storytelling doesn’t always work

In Olivia Fuch’s production, conducted by Killian Farrell, Amanda Woodbury, as Violetta, meets every challenge of Verdi’s score with strength and colour

La Traviata

National Opera House, Wexford

The final presentation in Irish National Opera’s current season is Verdi’s popular favourite La Traviata, with an opening night in Wexford followed by a run in Dublin this week and then two nights in Cork. The season, having offered a number of triumphs, including La Bohème, Salome and Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade with the Irish Baroque Orchestra, now closes with a production in which the success is more mixed.

Happily, what’s best are the strong vocal performances of the three lead roles: the lovers Violetta and Alfredo, and Alfredo’s catastrophically interfering father, Giorgio Germont. The baritone Brett Polegato, singing Germont, appears under pressure with some of his top notes on opening night, yet his forceful but emotionally nuanced tone when commanding poor Violetta to leave his son is just what his long and complex scene with her requires, notably as his demeanour gradually softens from its initial roughness. The tenor Mario Chang sings Alfredo with a classic, seemingly effortless bel canto. It’s a beautiful sound, perfectly matched to the love that motivates his character.

Verdi, of course, places the greatest demands in range, dynamics and high-flying agility on Violetta, and Amanda Woodbury meets every challenge with strength and colour. The soprano’s voice dances through the famous drinking song in act one, graphically encapsulates the sudden rupture of happiness caused by Germont’s intervention in act two, and moves from whispered pianissimo to monumental declamation in the climax of act three.

But there are problems that work against this high quality of singing and therefore undermine its vital relationship with the storytelling. These start with a lack of onstage chemistry between the lovers. There is an emotional flatness in their exchanges, and their physical contact is unreal and awkward, lacking the appearance of spontaneity and urgency. This creates an impression of discomfort that spreads to the audience, where it risks overburdening the willing suspension of disbelief.


The staging mostly works well. The production’s director, Olivia Fuchs, and designer, Katie Davenport, evoke the wealth and hedonism of the Parisian partying class in the mid-18th century with a set that moves easily from bedroom to ballroom to country house. Although sometimes appearing crowded on the Wexford stage, the energetic and lavishly costumed chorus is well deployed as the self-indulging society that appears to care little for anything beyond its own entertainment. Keeping Violetta’s hospital-style metal deathbed on view for all three acts – including suspended from above in act two, a sort of bed of Damocles – is not fully convincing.

There is also an issue in the orchestra. What at first seem like only occasional lapses in instrumental ensemble end up recurring with grating regularity. This is at odds with the conducting of Killian Farrell, whose direction is intensely yet economically detailed and energetically precise. While the orchestra comes with him in matters such as balance – with the singing never masked by the playing – and in the overall sweep of the opera’s ebb and flow, the fact that it does not always respond to him with clean ensemble is hard to ignore.

Irish National Opera’s production of La Traviata continues at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, May 21st, until Saturday, May 25th, and at Cork Opera House on Wednesday, May 29th, and Friday, May 31st. The INO website has details of changes to the cast on Wednesday, May 22nd, and Friday, May 24th, and to the conductor on Friday, May 31st